Where Did My Pen Go? A Brief Theory of How to Understand the Universe

A Brief Theory of How to Understand the Universe

Let’s start with a truism. Those are always good.

To live is to continually encounter the unknowable.

And boy, that unknowable is everywhere. Every time we ask a question to which we practically cannot get a definitive answer, we are encountering the unknowable. The unknowable can include questions as divergent as What happens when I die?  to  Where did my pen go? 

In that good ol’ Western intellectual tradition,  questions like What happens when I die? are given the honor of being the Big Questions. The really important ones. The ones that entire academic disciplines, religions, and elaborate social structures are built around. We have whole institutions in our culture dedicated to telling us what and how to think about the Big Questions. Churches. Schools, Governments. You know, the official guardians of culture.

But the answer to Where did my pen go? can be equally as unknowable as What happens when I die? And how we look at the small questions is equally determined by culture. And this can be in a much more dynamic way, from the ground up, and in constant tension within the hierarchies of power within the culture. 

Let’s take a look at that question of Where did my pen go?  I’m going to posit three responses here,:

  1.  My pen has fallen behind the couch.
  2.  God is punishing me by taking my pen. 
  3. Demons took my pen.

So let’s start by looking for the pen behind the couch. This is generally the most socially sanctioned answer to that question. We love us some simple, logical explanations here in the West.

Looking behind the couch is also assuming that there is what we’d call a Rational explanation for the pen’s disappearance. No agency beyond the force of gravity and the simple motions of physics is responsible for the disappearance of the pen.

The only problem arises when you can’t find the pen.

That’s where we encounter the unknowable.

How to find yourself while looking for your pen

There are times when we  simply can’t find the pen. Times it just doesn’t turn up. That,  while tearing all the cushions off the couch may result in a few stray pennies to fatten  your ledger, the pen itself, the object of all this effort, remains missing.

Loosing an object like this is a common experience. The sanctioned cultural answer to what happened to my pen is to find a rational explanation to what happened to the pen. After all, there must be some rational explanation. That is how our universe works. And how office supply stores stay in business.

But frequently, this rational explanation fails. It doesn’t find the pen.  It is at  odds with the perceived experience of what has just happened. There’s a gap in the narrative. What we thought we knew has  proved to be not enough.

This is an encounter with the unknowable.

Of course, the immediate counter to this is that is not unknowable, simply unknown, to which I will say you may very well be right but that’s not really the point. It’s the perception of the phenomena, not the phenomena itself, that’s the point here. It’s how it feels to lose that pen. An encounter with the unknowable is, by its nature, an irrational experience.

And this is where those hierarchies start really coming into play. The answer My pen is behind the couch is the Rational answer. This is the answer that’s given the most institutional respect  in modern American culture. This is the way of finding the pen you can get research funding for.

But, when the irrational enters the picture, the sanctioned explanation fails. There’s social shaming for even rating the question, because we are expected to totally accept those explanations given from the top down. The question must either ignored or reframed.

The is where the next answer comes in. God is punishing me is the Religious answer to the question. This is one which is also given a great deal of respect in our culture but only when it comes to certain questions.  It’s a socially sanctioned break from the rational. Call it the Institutionalized Irrational.  This answer  places responsibility for the loss of the pen on the individual in a hierarchical relationship. God can punish you because he outranks you. And his institutions on Earth outrank you, too.

But it’s the third approach that I find most intriguing This is the answer Demons took my pen, and it’s the answer that generally probably given the least amount of credence in America today. Because it’s not institutionalized, and it’s irrational.  But, it’s also probably the most emotionally and experientially satisfying of all three.

This is the approach which acknowledges the ultimate unknowability of the answer, but can also provide a course of tangible action to address the problem. Because all questions are cultural questions, and it’s the approach which is best suited to answering a culturally specific question in culturally specific terms. Let’s call this approach is Folkloric.

By Folkloric I mean that it’s an explanation which is derived from common cultural beliefs and practices belong to a specific group with which the individual explicitly identifies. This means that the connotations can and will shift with cultural perspectives. So, what it means to say demons took my pen is dependent on what the cultural explanation for what a demon is.

A brief lesson in comparative demonology

in Christian tradition demons are often depicted as servants of Satan, who  in that cosmology is a figure that exists as the source of all evil and discontent in the world in. So the actions of demons are inherently malicious. In some modern evangelical strains of Christianity, there’s a belief that demons are constantly active in the world and unceasingly attempting to undermine an individual’s salvation, which is the essential ingredient in Protestant Christian belief in obtaining a pleasant afterlife. In this worldview, demons are a constant threat which require constant mental vigilance to guard against, otherwise one is liable to slip into eternal damnation.  From this perspective, we slip back into the territory of answer number two.

However, if we look at Jewish tradition around demons, the cosmology isn’t dualistic in the same way. In Ashkenazi Jewish folk tradition, demons are part of the same creation as the rest of the world. And  in folk tradition, demons are the last thing that was created by God during the week the world was being formed. God was in the process of creating these new beings on the first Friday, and had gotten as far as making the spirits but running out of time before the first Sabbath, so he never got the chance to make the bodies. So demons in Jewish tradition aren’t something which is necessarily evil, they are something which is simply there. Their interactions with people can be that they are a nuisance, maybe occasionally dangerous, but basically they aren’t motivated by maliciousness. There’s no concept of eternal damnation in Jewish belief, so the stakes are just lower.

The upshot of this is that there are ways in this tradition to deal with demons. There are protective talismans that can be worn or placed around the home, invocations or prayers that can be said, minor precautions that can keep demons from bothering you and doing things like taking your pen. There are ways to cope with the shock of that encounter with the unknowable.

Folk practice, folk belief,  a Folkloric approach, give us a psychological and emotional cushion for dealing with these unavoidable encounters with the unknowable, and do it in a way which can help reaffirm our core cultural and individual identities. Blaming demons removes responsibility from the individual and provides a sense of agency. Charms to be worn, prayers to be said, ways to keep the demons from taking your other pens. Calling on your own traditions in dealing with these encounters essentially helps us frame the encounter as “I may not know what’s going on here, but at least I know who I am.”

Demons are good for the soul

And this is important because it’s fairly likely that, in the entire course of you life, you’re going to lose a pen more often than you’re going to die. And I’m also willing to bet that you’ve yelled out in anger and frustration “where the hell did that pen go?” more recently than you’ve yelled out in anger and frustration “what the hell happens after I die?”

This kind of grounding strikes me as being extremely psychologically healthy. Or at least potentially psychologically healthy. Because it can also go very, very wrong. Particularly in a world where folklore and popular culture are continually feeding each other, and the tools for the creation of folk culture are controlled by forces outside of that culture. I’m looking at you, late market capitalism. And yes, there will be more on that topic.

Because it’s these encounters with the unknowable, and how they shape and are shaped by culture, that we’re going to be looking at in this blog series . How identity, belief, magic, superstition, and the demons of late market capitalism all play together. I’ll be looking at at what is and isn’t a god, why we should give Twinkies to aliens, and finding out just what the well dressed lizard person is wearing this season.